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Indiana overhauls education

2012-08-11T19:45:00Z 2012-08-12T22:43:07Z Indiana overhauls educationCarmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

If Indiana has been a leader in education reform in the United States, then Tony Bennett has been its facilitator.

From expansion of charter schools and vouchers to awarding merit pay and requiring annual evaluations for teachers, Indiana has made sweeping changes in education in the past two years.

Philosophically, the more choices in a pluralistic society, the better opportunity to prepare children, said Bennett, Indiana superintendent of public instruction.

"We can never lose sight of the fact that those choices must be held accountable to maintain a high level of quality," he said. "It's very, very important that we not forget that. With our belief that children should have more choices also involves the belief that those choices must maintain a level of quality. I don't want more bad schools."

The Indiana Legislature has passed several measures including creating merit pay, tying teacher evaluations to student performance, providing that education dollars follow the student, promoting more charter schools, providing for state scholarships to private schools and limiting teacher-contract negotiations to monetary items only.

In addition, the new A-through-F letter grading system for schools under Public Law 221 replaces the No Child Left Behind progress goals known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. That measure was part of the state's waiver application submitted and approved by the federal government.

Terry Spradlin, associate director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University at Bloomington, said the effects of Indiana's education reform won't be known for a couple of years, but he hopes the outcomes are honest and fair.

"If it is successful, we will laud the efforts; but if we don't see the type of gains we had hoped for, there will be decisions to be made down the road," he said.

Merrillville Schools Superintendent Tony Lux said student achievement as measured by the state's mandatory ISTEP-Plus exam has continued to grow steadily.

"This has happened even prior to the implementation of the merit pay concept and the notion that the threat of a negative evaluation are what will result in better student achievement," he said.

"However, if school systems approach the new teacher evaluation process with the intent to improve student learning by better refinement of the science and art of teaching rather than using it as a carrot-and-stick approach, there may be even more accelerated student learning," Lux said.

"Unfortunately, the state continues to profess that the only variable that affects student achievement is the teacher, and it refuses to acknowledge the reality that despite a teacher's best efforts the 'value added' effects of school can be negated by the 'value subtracted' effects that disadvantaged students experience when they walk out of the schoolhouse doors," Lux said.

At the same time school districts are facing an overhaul in education, they also are being forced to make cuts in their educational programs, teachers and staff.

E. Ric Frataccia, Portage superintendent, said it's nice the state has a surplus but "it's my understanding that a third of that surplus is derived from savings in K-12 education and another 15 percent of that is from higher education."

Hebron Superintendent George Letz said the state has about $2 billion in reserve, in part as a result of money cut from kindergarten-through-12th-grade education. "The governor hasn't given any indication that he plans to replace the money that he took away from schools, and that has really put us in the hole," Letz said.

Letz said it will be difficult for schools to recoup the losses unless there are huge increases in student enrollment, and he doesn't expect that to happen.

"We are not afraid of accountability, but the state makes it difficult for us to help students who need extra attention due to the funding problems," Letz said. "They expect us to continue to improve but do it with fewer dollars and fewer people."

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